“I remember a feeling of dread after making it”—Cursive’s Tim Kasher on ‘The Ugly Organ’
When we assembled our annual “Class Of…” special last year, in which we look back at 10 records from a decade prior that shaped the punk of today, including CURSIVE’s 2003 breakthrough The Ugly Organ was an absolute no-brainer. The Omaha-based post-hardcore quintet led by TIM KASHER hit an artistic stride with the album and its adjacent B-sides and compilation tracks that is almost Pinkerton-esque in nature—it’s musically grimy, lyrically uncomfortable and totally unforgettable. Kasher & Co. brought a level of art-rock the punk and emo scene had yet to experience before, and amazingly, a portion of the mainstream connected with it, too, thanks to heavy airplay for “Art Is Hard” and “The Recluse” on Fuse and MTV2.
(It remains Cursive’s best-selling release to this day.)
Photo Credit: Bill Sitzmann, circa 2003
The band’s longtime label, Saddle Creek, is releasing a deluxe edition of The Ugly Organ on Nov. 24 that features the entire album remastered as well as a slew of bonus tracks that are just as essential to the Cursive story as the album itself. The band will hit the road in early 2015 in support of the reissue, complete with a cellist (something their live lineup has lacked for 10 years), where they will revisit much of the material from this musically fertile period. We caught up with Kasher a few days after Halloween to see what his memories are of the record—and if we can expect anything special for Cursive’s 20th anniversary next year.
A few days ago, I was looking at the Timehop app on my phone, and it took me back to your amazing performance as Carrie at the Fest 12 in Gainesville, Florida (watch below), which was unforgettable for so many reasons. So my first question is how was your Halloween this year?
TIM KASHER: [Laughs.] It was so depressingly low-key this year. My girlfriend and I had to reaffirm to each other that it’s okay if not every Halloween is a hit. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. I went into the Halloween dollar bin and grabbed everything that was half-off and put it on my body, but I didn’t really get a chance to show it off too much.
Anyway, we are gathered here today to discuss The Ugly Organ—which already celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, but in true Cursive fashion, the deluxe edition is coming almost two years later. It’s the 11-and-a-halfth anniversary.
Which I think is one of the most important landmarks. We’ve been presupposed to think that 10 is a big deal. [Laughs.]
This album is viewed in pretty high regard by quite a number of people—just look at the tattoos on people’s arms. The artwork resonated, the music resonated, and there’s no question this is one of Cursive’s classic albums. So why do you think it took this long to celebrate it?
Saddle Creek and Cursive were talking about it a good year before the 10th anniversary, and the thought was to get it out at the right time, but I just don’t think it was… I’m just really laid back about it. It was the plan all along, but we just never got around to hitting the 10th anniversary mark.
To you as a person, how important are anniversaries?
Not much at all. It’s interesting to hear, in the world of social media, when those milestones are brought up or mentioned online. I know there was some chatter of the Good Life’s Album Of The Year turning 10 years old this past August, and I wouldn’t have thought of that. I’m glad that people are remarking upon it, but I just don’t think about it a ton.
There are anniversaries in our lives that hold a lot more significance. You recall your 10th high school reunion came around, and you kinda felt, “Wow, that’s crazy, I’m so old,” and now I’m way past that. I don’t know what the template is for what we’re supposed to do or how we’re supposed to react when albums turn certain ages, other than I can mention this is a difference of how time works: When these albums turn 10 and there’s a certain significance to that, it sends a lot of people spiraling into this nostalgia, like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe The Ugly Organ is 10 years old!” There’s been a lot of that. From the perspective of someone saying it, yeah, that makes sense—you were in high school or college then, and so much has happened since. But from my perspective, The Ugly Organ is just an attachment of all the ongoing records I release. So I don’t feel that much older. The nostalgia isn’t as intense for me, since I’ve lived with the album the whole time.
Given how busy you’ve been between Cursive, the Good Life and your solo albums, you’ve had an album out practically every year since 1998 or so. There’s always going to be something celebrating a milestone anniversary every year since you’ve had such a prolific career.
That’s a fun way to think of it. [Laughs.] I should put more thought into these anniversaries!
The songs are so current in the existence that I live. I still play them live; I’m gonna go out and play them a ton next year. I just recently got my copies of the vinyl and CD, and it certainly doesn’t look current, though—looking at the pictures of us in the liner notes, we all look a bit more fresh-faced than we do now.
For those of us who had been fans of your band since the late ’90s, It was a really exciting time to be a Cursive fan in 2003—it was like all the adventurousness you had hinted at all came to fruition on one album. When you listen to The Ugly Organ now, what do you hear from those songs? Are there things you still cringe at, or wish you had a second take on?
The Ugly Organ is really tricky to wrap my head around, and it always has been. That’s the record that’s leaps and bounds over the other ones. It’s definitely special to all of us. We never had the reaction [at the time] that this was going to be the special one. If anything, we felt the opposite, like we had extended ourselves too far and this was too weird, too much, no one’s gonna get it. I remember that feeling of dread after doing it, which is so curious, which also enables the weird relationship I have with the record. I just listened to the remaster yesterday and I like it a lot better, which makes me feel a lot healthier. This is gonna sound like something the cool guys say, like, “I never listen to my own stuff,” but I don’t, and I really should listen to the old stuff more often for so many reasons: “What were you doing production-wise back then? What were your tones back then? What kind of style was your writing?” I tend to not do it because it makes me feel a little bit queasy or disinterested when I do it.
So I hadn’t sat and listened to The Ugly Organ for a really long time, and my memory of the last time I listened to it was a really depressing, bad memory. It was back on tour, sometime in 2003, we were all in the van and were like, “Let’s pop it in!” Y’know, what you do when you’re in a band and you’re proud of what you do. “It’s been a few months; let’s check it out again.” It made me feel awful. I thought it was so wrong, and it didn’t sound good, and there were bad ideas, and I was really hard on myself at that time in my life. I feel so much better now. I was kind of cringing putting it on, but I thought it sounded good. It’s somewhere in between not too polished and not too raw.
Let’s talk about the bonus tracks on the deluxe reissue. Obviously, The Ugly Organ itself is a concept album, which is helped along by the liner notes, and even the B-sides from that time period fit into it well. But what about those four songs that were originally on the Eastern Youth split? Where did those come in the writing process and how do those relate to The Ugly Organ now?
They came earlier, and that has everything to do with why they ended up on the Eastern Youth split. I’d probably offer that the second two songs on that split were just “additional songs on a split,” because as a band, you don’t want to throw all your best stuff on a split—you’re trying to write a good record and you don’t want to give it all away. But we wanted to make sure the split was good. So we gave away “Excerpts From Various Notes Strewn Around The Bedroom of April Connolly, Feb. 24, 1997” and “Am I Not Yours?” I think those two songs certainly would’ve been on the album had they come later in the writing process or had the split CD never surfaced.
The thing about the theme of The Ugly Organ as far as the liner notes and stuff like that, for me, I was never trying to write something so tightly conceptualized. Really, Ted [Stevens, guitar] had a large role in laying the songs out and considering what they all meant and how they related to each other and creating a higher concept from the artwork, of the theatrical layout. I thought it worked really well. The point being, I think “Am I Not Yours?” and “April Connolley” could’ve easily fit into that, and become other characters in the play.
I’m glad all the B-sides are separated from the actual album on the reissue, though; I don’t like things tacked on. We could have tried to resequence it, but that would be some sort of weird, revisionist, George Lucas-type thing.
There is quite a bit of nuance with The Ugly Organ; I can almost guarantee there have been plenty of instances of misunderstanding or misinterpretation among fans and listeners regarding your intent with some songs. Does anything come to mind?
An immediate one that comes to mind is how many people over the years have, in my opinion, totally missed the tongue-in-cheek aspect of “Art Is Hard.” But when they do, I never correct them. I’ve had a decent amount of people tell me how motivational that song is, and I never correct them, because, well, okay, if that’s what they’re getting from it, then good for them. [Laughs.] But I think the whole thing is so sardonic—I’m making fun of myself and making fun of the songwriting process and making fun of rock ’n’ roll music. I guess if you don’t know the curmudgeonly asshole who writes these songs, you might think it’s this upbeat song about, “Stick with it, kid! Art is tough, but you’re gonna make it!” [Laughs.]
You’ve dabbled in screenwriting. How close did The Ugly Organ ever get to being an actual stage performance?
Not close at all, although there have been a handful of grand gestures who have written things out and prepared it themselves. I’m not real comfortable on signing off on something like that, and I’ve never tried it myself. For [Cursive’s 2012 album] I Am Gemini, I was really interested in doing something like that, but by the time I finished it, it winks at the idea of this being some larger production, but actually, the production is just the record itself. At least currently, I like the fiction of it alluding to some sort of grander production that’s out there in the world but actually isn’t at all.
Next year, you’ll be doing extensive touring in support of this reissue, and it will be the first time you’ve performed with a cellist onstage since 2005, when Gretta Cohn left the band. What made you decide to stay away from replacing her at that time, and what is it that finally made you comfortable enough to reincorporate the instrument back into your live shows?
Looking back now, I think the reasons were kind of petty. [Laughs.] The Ugly Organ blew up so much more than we were comfortable with or used to, and it’s really kind of a shame we didn’t continue using the cello, because I really love stringed instruments a lot. I was just too nervous about it becoming gimmicky or being “the cello band.” Stringed instruments in rock ’n’ roll are just unique enough where bands become “cello bands.” I didn’t want to be lumped into that or be accused of doing something too gimmicky. I also think it’s an artistic challenge to be like, “If this is going well, I want to not do that and I want to go do something else now.”
You’re not playing The Ugly Organ start-to-finish on this tour, but you will have a cellist onstage with you and you will be playing more of it than you have in recent years. Has there been interest in Gretta rejoining you for any of these shows?
There was interest in that. We’ve always been in good contact with Gretta. The thing is, we like to be careful about coming off too much as a nostalgia band. It’s a little bit of a tricky thing, because we never really stopped playing or releasing records since The Ugly Organ came out, so it’s kind of a sticky thing to “bring back the old band” when we have the current band. We put a decent amount of thought into that. These are all similar reasons why we want to go out and play to promote the reissue of the album but don’t want to play it front-to-back because don’t want to be associated with the “it’s a band that got back together to play an album that you loved” because we didn’t get back together; we’re just together.
There are probably lots of people familiar with The Ugly Organ who didn’t keep up with the band and might have assumed the band have broken up. Did anyone come out of the woodwork and say, “Oh, wow, they’re back together” or any similar sentiment?
I didn’t see anything myself online, but I’m sure they’re there. Just living the life of “a guy in Cursive,” I’ll run into people here and there, and they’re like, “What are you up to?” and I’ll tell them we just put out a new album, and they’re like, “Oh, you guys are still together?” [Laughs.] That’s pretty normal.
How does it make you feel when you find out the music you created in your late 20s and early 30s had such an impact with people who were 13 to 16 years old at the time?
It all becomes relative. Probably 10 years ago, they seemed hysterical—people would say, “I started listening to you when I was a freshman in high school” and that was weird—but there are people now who are like, “My parents listen to you all the time.” I’ve personally just learned to roll with it. Somehow in my mind it’s a huge accomplishment to meet those people who are like, “I started listening to you in 6th grade.” I kinda love that, because I remember how freaked out we were about music at that age.
Cursive's current lineup. Photo credit: Daniel Mueller
So not only are you doing this tour next year, but it’s worth noting that 2015 is the 20th anniversary of Cursive as a band. Have you put in any thought as to how you’ll celebrate next year? Will there be a cake at some point?
We haven’t talked about it yet, and I’m actually getting chills a little bit that you’re pointing that out. We’re never really quite sure what our actual anniversary is, but we put out a Slowdown Virginia CD in 1994, and then started up Cursive in ’95. We should totally throw some kind of party. It would be neat to do a show with Clint [Schnase, former drummer] and Steve [Pedersen, former guitarist]. I’d be just as happy to meet up with everybody. The cake sounds good, though. That’s a good idea. ALT
Still have questions? Participate in Tim Kasher's Reddit AMA this Monday, Nov. 24 at 1 p.m. EST.